Astrometers Are Wobble-Watchers

letter A Hi, Sy, what’s going on in Cathleen’s seminar?

You were right, Al.
It’s about exoplanets and how to find them.
Jeremy’s pitching astrometry.
That’s about measuring star locations in the sky.
I’ll fill you in later.

“So that’s my cultural colonialism rant, thanks for listening. On to the real presentation. Maria showed us how to look for exoplanets when they wobble along our line of sight. But what if they wobble perpendicular to that? Careful measurement should show that, right? The ancients thought that holy forces had permanently set the positions of all the stars except for the planets so they didn’t measure that close. Tycho Brahe took meticulous measurements with room‑sized instruments—”

<voice from the back> “Room‑sized? What difference does that make?”

“What if I told you that two stars are 3 millimeters apart in the sky?”

<another voice> “How far out’s your ruler? Sky stuff, you need to talk angles because that’s all you got.”

“Well there you go. That’s why Tycho went for maximum angle‑measuring accuracy. He built a sextant with a 5‑foot radius. He used an entire north‑south wall as a quadrant. His primary instrument was an armillary sphere three yards across.”

<first voice again> “Wait, a sphere, like a big bubble? Why north‑south? What’s a quadrant?”

  • I give him a nudge. “He’s just a kid, Mr Feder. Be nice. One question at a time.”
  • “But I got so many!”

“Think about Tycho’s goal. Like astrometers before him, he wanted to build an accurate map of the heavens. Native Americans a thousand years or more ago carved free‑hand star maps on cave ceilings and turtle shells. Tycho followed the Arabic and Chinese quantitative mapping traditions. There’s two ways to do that. One is to measure and map the visual angles between many pairs of stars. That strategy fails quickly because errors accumulate. Four or five steps along the way you’re plotting the same star in two different locations.”

<Feder’s voice again> “There’s a better way?”

“Yessir. Measure and map each star relative to a standard coordinate system. If your system’s a good one, errors tend to average out. The latitude‑longitude system works well for locating places on Earth. Two thousand years ago the Babylonians used something similar for places in the crystal sphere they thought supported the stars above us. Where the equinoctial Sun rose on the horizon was a special direction. Their buildings celebrated it. Starting from that direction the horizontal angle to a star was its longitude. The star’s latitude was its angle up from the horizon towards the zenith straight above. But those map coordinates don’t work for another part of the world. Astrometers needed something better.”

<Feder again> “So what did they do already?”

“They may or may not have believed the Earth itself is round, but they recognized the Pole Star’s steady position that the rest of the sky revolved around. They also noticed that as each month went by the constellations played ring‑a‑rosie in a plane perpendicular to the north‑south axis. Call that the Plane of The Ecliptic. Pick a star, measure its angle away from the Ecliptic and you’ve got an ecliptic latitude. Measure its angle around the Ecliptic away from a reference star and you’ve got a ecliptic longitude. Tycho’s instruments were designed to measure star coordinates. His quadrant was a 90° bronze arc he embedded in that north‑south wall, let him measure a star’s latitude as it crossed his meridian. His ‘Sphere’ was simply a pair of calibrated metal rings on a gimbal mounting so he could point to target and reference stars and measure the angle between them. If his calibration used degree markings they’d be about 25 millimeters apart. His work was the best of his time but the limit of his accuracy was a few dozen arcseconds.”

“Is that bad?”

“It is if you’re looking for exoplanets by watching for stellar wobble. Maria’s Jupiter example showed the Sun wobbling by 1½ million kilometers. I worked this example with a bigger wobble and a star that would be mid‑range for most of our constellations. Best case, we’d see its image jiggling by about 90 microarcseconds. Tycho’s instruments weren’t good enough for wobbles.”

~~ Rich Olcott